The Problems of Rural New England: A Remote Village
VOL. LXXIX.—MAY, 1897.—No. CCCCLXXV.
A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art, and Politics.
THE most conspicuous object in the village is the tavern, a long, low building, once painted red, but now colored by the weather rather than by the art of man. It stands back a little from the street, with a grass-plot, partly shaded by a tall maple, intervening. In the front of the house there is a piazza, upon which is placed a long settee, and in summer a tub with an oleander bush. It is a cool spot, and I love to sit there when the cows are coming home to the slow music of their tinkling bells, and the blue smoke which foretells the supper - hour soars lazily aloft from the neighboring chimneys. The wide front door, never closed in warm weather, opens directly from the piazza into the office, — the pleasantest room in the whole village.
It has a low ceiling, a big fireplace, and various heavy mahogany chairs and cabinets which have come down from colonial times. A broad sofa almost fills one side of the room, and upon the walls hang a map of the county, a picture of General Knox (the horse of that name, not the man), and an oil-painting of a deer lifting its head in alarm from the spring in the beech wood where it had stooped to drink. This picture, by the hand of a local artist, is executed with great skill; and in fact it is the wonder of many travelers, who do not expect to find in our remote village the artistic talent which we undoubtedly possess.
If, on leaving the tavern, you should turn to the right, — that is, to the south, — you would arrive presently at a beautiful lake, fifteen miles long, and the first of a series of lakes. The road runs past this lake, now through the woods, now through rich meadows, and occasionally comes so close to the water’s edge that in times of flood the road is submerged. Across the lake, on the further side from the village, there rise lofty and irregular hills, wooded at the base and up their sides, but bald and jagged near the top. Should you pursue the highway far enough to the south, it would bring you to the White Mountains, the topmost peaks of which are plainly visible, in clear weather, from all the hills around. Between the tavern and the lake lies the straggling village. There are two or three stores, a church, a sawmill, a blacksmith shop, and an old factory building now falling into decay. But above the tavern and close to it the road abruptly sweeps around to the left and ascends the hill; then, turning northward again, it leads to the unbroken and primeval forest which lies between northern New England and Canada. Two big bears were caught in a trap last fall near an abandoned farmhouse on this road, about five miles from the village. Another bear was shot just over the edge of Checkerberry Knoll, which rises not three quarters of a mile from the tavern ; and the teacher of the district school, which is just beyond the knoll, reports that while she sat under a tree near the schoolhouse, one Sunday afternoon, — in what company, if any, she failed to state, — a tiny fawn came out of the woods, ventured to the very edge of the road, within a few yards of the schoolmistress, and then fled back to its mother in the forest. There is a little shivering mongrel terrier in the village which has enjoyed so much experience in hunting bears, and has such a reputation for courage in worrying them, that he is looked upon almost with awe by the small boys of the neighborhood. In my childhood wolves were often seen in the forest, but they disappeared thirty or forty years ago. Deer, however, have increased in number, and a wildcat was shot last winter near Beaver Brook.
I have said that the office in the tavern is the pleasantest place in the village, but some people might prefer the store kept by Asher Dill. The main part of the store is an oblong room, with a ceiling so low that a tall man could easily touch it with his hand, and so black with smoke that it has ceased to look spotted or dirty. On one side of the room and near the door there are shelves and drawers, with a small counter in front of them, for drugs ; on the other side of the room there is a long counter for the display of dry-goods, hats, boots and shoes, and other articles. In the rear is the grocery department, and in corners here and there are stacked farm implements, such as rakes, forks, scythes, and spades. In the centre of the room is a big stove, around which, almost every evening throughout the year, are gathered the more sociable men of the village. Some are seated on a low bench placed near the stove for their accommodation, — a bench so whittled by generations of pocket-knives as to have lost all semblance of its original form; others sit on the counters or on barrels; and there are always a few restless spirits who lean against whatever is convenient for that purpose, with their hands in their pockets. If anybody becomes hungry, he rambles over to the back part of the store, where, upon a big table, and indescribably surrounded by nails, seeds, door-knobs, balls of twine, axe-heads, rubber boots, currycombs, and other articles, is sure to be found a huge round of cheese protected by a fly-screen. Then there are crackers handy in barrels or boxes, and of course dried apples in plenty, so that a fair meal can be had at a moment’s notice. Payment is made or not made, or offered, or pretended to be offered, according to the relations subsisting between the consumer and Asher at the time.
But even upon this cheerful scene, when, on a winter’s night, the birch wood crackles gayly in the stove, when the lamplight is reflected by the highly polished old red counters, when jests and quips go round, there comes now and then a touch of tragedy. At one side and in the front of the store there is, as I have said, a drug department. The door opens softly, and Jake Herring enters. He has driven down from his poverty-stricken home on the mountain side to get medicine for his wife, who, as we all know, is dying at last, after years of privation and sickness. Jake shuffles up to the counter with that apologetic air which is natural to a man who has made a failure of life. The frost hangs from his ragged beard, and his hollow eyes are bloodshot with the cold. There is not much sympathy ontwardly expressed for him, — we are not effusive people in our corner of New England, — but still a civil inquiry is made as to the health of his “ woman.” Asher compounds the medicine which the doctor knows, which Jake knows, which the dying woman herself knows, will be of none effect, but which nevertheless must in decency be administered, since it is all that human skill can provide as a defense against the great enemy. As the medicine is handed to him, poor Jake mutters something about not having the cash in his pocket just then to pay for it; but Asher cheerfully replies, “ That’s all right.”
Asher is a shrewd man at a bargain, but he has a heart in his bosom. He furnishes the medicine, and in a day or two he will furnish the coffin, knowing that Jake will never be able to pay for it, and that he may or may not get the money out of the selectmen. Jake, taking the bottle, leaves the store, and presently the sound of his sleigh - bells is borne on the frosty air as he urges forward his old lame horse. Asher goes back to his books, — which he always posts at night, for he takes little part in the conversation around him, — but he makes no charge for the medicine. Perhaps that small account, with some others, will be balanced in those celestial books which, we hope or fear, are kept for the final reckoning with mankind.
This incident gives the conversation a new turn, and strange stories are told about Jake Herring’s housekeeping and general shiftlessness. It is recalled how, before he built the lean-to which now serves for a barn, his old black mare was kept, in cold weather, in the same house with the family, and how on one occasion Jake complained that their dinner had been spoiled because “ old Raven whisked her tail through the gravy.” “They say,” narrates Foss Jones, “ that when the doctor went, last week, to see Almiry [Jake’s wife], he found a bushel of potatoes in the bed with her. It was the only place they had to keep them from freezing.”
Nobody starves to death in our village, but some of the mountain folk, who live far away on by-roads, in places which are often inaccessible in winter, are very poor, ill nourished and ill clothed. However, the prevailing tone in Asher Dill’s store and in the village generally is a humorous one, — a tone of irony and of good-natured sarcasm. Almost everybody cultivates a fine sense of humor; in fact, to be humorous, and especially to be good at repartee, is the one intellectual ambition of the community. We do not care much for learning of any sort. Our letters — which we put off writing till about six months after they are due
— do not excel in grammar or in penmanship. And it is really astonishing, even to ourselves, how little we care for what goes on in the outside world. We read the papers with only a languid interest, being more concerned about the trivial events in the next town, duly chronicled in the county paper, than we are about what is said or done in Washington, in London, or in Paris. But the sense of humor is developed among us in childhood, and is never lost, even in moments of difficulty or of danger. Last Fourth of July, a desperate character who lives on a mountain road in the outskirts of the town drove into the village in a little rickety cart, waving over his head a woman’s broken and battered sunshade, which he had picked up somewhere. He was very drunk, and before long the cart was upset. His horse, a half-broken colt, kicked and plunged, and tried to run away. The fellow pluckily clung to the reins, and was dragged about on the ground hither and thither, being finally extricated from the ruins of his cart. But through it all he kept the sunshade in his hand. “ I don’t care anything about myself,” he said, as he was assisted to his feet, the blood streaming from his face, “nor about the hoss, nor about the cart, but I wuz determined to save this beautiful parasol.”
To discuss why this humorous spirit should be the prevailing spirit in an Anglo-Saxon community of Puritan descent would be a difficult though pleasant task ; but I must content myself here with the obvious remark that it could not exist except in connection with an ample background of leisure. Our village— and perhaps this cardinal fact ought to have been stated at the outset
— enjoys a blessed immunity from railroads. The nearest station is ten miles off ; and the mails come by a stage which arrives anywhere between seven P. M. and midnight, — except on some nights in winter when it does not arrive at all, being prevented by snowstorms. This isolation helps to keep out the feverish spirit which troubles most American communities. There is very little ambition of any sort among us ; and the modern principle that every man ought to labor every day, and through the whole of every day, finds no acceptance whatever in our corner of New England. There is no man in the community so poor that he cannot afford to take a day off for partridge-shooting, for visiting, or even for resting. If a farmer feels inclined to suspend haying in the middle of a week in order that he may go trout-fishing, he does so without loss of self-respect or of credit; he can get trusted at the store just the same. If one goes to the mill or to the blacksmith shop, he does not feel bound, when his errand has been done, to hurry home; he is at liberty to sit down in the sun and whittle a stick in whatever company may be at hand. In short, we prefer to take such amusement as we can get, day by day, rather than to expend all our efforts in merely striving to better our material condition.
It would be easy to quarrel with this kind of philosophy; and yet the result is that, although poor, we enjoy what is accounted the best gift of wealth, namely, leisure. A few men in the village do make a pretense of industry, but it is only a pretense. There is old Jerry Horne, for instance ; one often sees him, on a nice cloudy day in summer, starting off early, with a scythe ostentatiously sticking out of the back of his wagon. Jerry wishes to create the impression that he is going to cut the grass on some mountain field, but we all know that he is off for a day’s fishing. So, at the ballgames between our nine and the clubs of neighboring towns, Jerry is always a spectator ; but he comes in his shirtsleeves, with an axe in his hand, as if he had set out with a different intention, and, quite casually, had turned aside to spend a few minutes in the ball-field. Jerry has a grave kind of humor, which loses in the telling, but it is very effective from his lips. One wet morning, he was asked by a neighbor who had just come into the store, where Jerry sat with his cronies, whether he “ thought it likely to rain all day.” “ Why,” said Jerry, going to the door and looking out dubiously, as if he suspected that the heavenly powers might have made some mistake, “ we had n’t spoke for it to rain beyond noon.” I remember another occasion, a dark chilly day in November, when Jerry came into the store — almost everything happens there — while I chanced to be present. He was limping a little, for in damp weather he suffers somewhat from rheumatism. “ Say ! ” he inquired, after the customary salutations, “ do any of you fellows know what became of old Squire Tatlock’s wooden leg ? ” Now, Squire Tatlock has been dead for many years, and the general opinion in the store was that the wooden leg had been buried with him, though one or two persons thought that it would probably be found in the attic of his late residence. " But what do you want to know for ? ” somebody asked. " Oh,” said Jerry, nursing his right knee, “ I was only thinking that if that leg was around handy anywhere, I would have one of mine taken off, and use that instead ; I believe that I should travel a good deal sounder.” Jerry, by the way, was a brave soldier in the Civil War, and he has a deep-rooted love of excitement. A brass band sets him on edge, and coming home from a horse-trot he takes what is known in country parlance as “ the middle of the road.”
Jerry Horne’s humor has the characteristic American trait of exaggeration ; but his exaggeration fades and shrinks to nothing when compared with that of Pete Lamb. Pete is a choleric man of middle age, with a red face and an intense, emphatic way of speaking, accompanied by a fierce look which is apt to impose upon strangers. Pete is not so much a humorist as a romancer ; in fact, some persons might call him a liar, but that would be a crude way of describing a man whose imagination runs away with him. I cannot now recall — one never can — the best of his stories, but I do remember the main points of his adventure with the bull. Pete, while crossing a field, met a bull of immense size and extreme ferocity. The bull pawed the earth, lowered his head, and exhibited every sign of anger and hostility. An ordinary man would have fled toward the fence, but Pete scorned flight. He calmly stood his ground till the bull charged upon him. At the critical moment he nimbly leaped aside, and as the bull shot past him grabbed the animal by his tail. Then began a tremendous conflict, which lasted, as I remember, about four hours. Round and round went the bull, and round and round went Pete at the end of his tail. At times Pete held on with one hand, and at times he used both hands. Very fortunately, he happened to be wearing a pair of heavy, hobnailed boots ; and thus, by well-directed kicks, he was able to goad the bull to further madness whenever he showed symptoms of flagging. At last the bull dropped exhausted, and in a few moments expired. But the climax of the story was not yet reached. " That bull,” Pete used to say, gazing fiercely at the person addressed, as if any signs of unbelief would arouse instant retaliation on Pete’s part, “that bull was worth a t-h-o-u-s-a-n-d dollars ! ”
However, it would be unfair to give the impression that we cherish no arts except those of conversation and repartee. Music and dancing are cultivated almost with enthusiasm. There are at least a dozen violin players in the village, of whom several have made their own instruments ; and very good instruments they are. If you should drop in of an evening at the tavern already described, the conversation which you heard would most likely, indeed, relate to horses, but quite possibly it would relate to violins. There are men in the village, remote as it is from any musical centre, who will discourse to you about instruments of Amati and Straduarius as learnedly as if they were residents of Florence or of Vienna. We have a small band of stringed instruments, assisted by a cornet and a flute, which is capable of music that would be heard with pleasure by connoisseurs in New York or Boston, — at least, so we are informed by persons who have seen the world. This band plays on great occasions, such as the Fourth of July, and also for the dances which are given frequently throughout the year. Commonly, these dances take place in a rough, unpainted one-story building, erected for the purpose, in a grove near the village ; and perhaps a stranger would consider them to be the most characteristic occurrences in our remote community. The dance-hall stands amid tall, sombre pines, and on a dark night in summer one finds the path to it with some difficulty, stumbling over the roots of trees, and feeling his way among the buckboards and buggies which occupy the vacant spaces of the wood. The sides of the hall are removable, for the sake of coolness in warm weather. It is somewhat dimly lit with kerosene lamps, and scantily furnished with rough benches and chairs ; but all things are done decently and in order. In fact, neatly painted signs are hung on the walls of the room, inscribed with this request : “ Please do not spit on the floor. " These signs and a few small American flags constitute the decorations of the hall.
All ages and occupations are represented, and the costumes are various. There may be a “ boiled shirt ” here and there in the hall, but most of the men and boys wear “ sweaters ” or flannel shirts ; and they all keep their hats on, for, since the sides are open, or partly so, the fiction is maintained that we are out of doors. The women pay more attention to dress. The girls are bareheaded, or else have on jaunty caps, and white gowns or others of a festal description are worn by most of them. Nobody is prohibited from coming, and there are some men and some women here who would be excluded if a rigorous moral test were applied. There is Jim Hurst, for instance, a rural Lothario who has ruined more than one girl; and that tall, black-haired young man, whose face is flushed with something besides dancing, is Hen Giddings. He is supposed to have played a part in the “ Road House tragedy,” as the newspapers called it, which occurred near Grandon last winter. The grand jury failed to indict him, but public opinion rendered a verdict of guilty. Our dances are not unlike those given on " the Fork,” and recalled by Bret Harte’s heroine, who, in her letter from New York, reminded her lover
And how I once went down the middle
With the man that shot Sandy McGee.”
There are likely to be some strangers present, — a drummer or two, a traveling dentist, and perhaps a few young men from one of the neighboring towns. These last will probably be more or less drunk, as is the custom of young men who seek their amusement away from home. But if they become uproarious or offensive, they will promptly be cast out. Kola King attends to that part of the business. He is that handsome young fellow with dark hair and complexion, who is indolently making love to the blonde girl in the corner. The other day, Kola took a barrel of flour in his arms and carried it up two flights of steep stairs without stopping. He can lift five sacks of bran with his teeth.
The proceedings always begin with a march, but not such a march as, we understand, opens the more conventional balls of city people. Our march is more like a dance. It is led, usually, by the beauty of the village, — a tall, well-made girl, with black hair, big blue eyes, brilliant complexion, and a certain classic repose of manner. There is perhaps a suggestion of coarseness in her full but beautifully curved lips and rounded chin. She walks gracefully, with the slightest possible swaying motion of the hips. In short, this village beauty of ours is a Greek goddess come to life in rural New England. She and her partner in the march — who may be this or that favored young man, for the girl is capricious — first make the tour of the room three or four times, followed by the other couples. Then they separate, one going to the right, the other to the left, all the female dancers following the girl, and the male dancers following her partner ; thus they thread the hall in single file, and then reunite, only to separate again. The march, in fact, has its mazes as well as the dance. Those who engage in it move with a quick, short step ; there is a rhythmical shuffling of feet on the bare floor ; the music is seductive, and a faint odor of pinetrees floats in on the summer air. As the visitor looks on, he will be impressed now and then by a typical figure. Here, for example, with shoulders thrown back and with a slight and becoming swagger, comes a young man such as a recruiting officer or a romancer would pick out, — a fellow ready, with equal zest, to fight any man or make love to any woman. Close behind him is a true mountainbred girl. As one glances at her flushed face, large wild eyes, and slightly disheveled hair, one is tempted to believe that some wood-nymph has strayed into the hall from the neighboring forest, or even that Aphrodite herself has taken a partner for the evening.
The truth is, we are a primeval people, close to nature ; and we have the virtues and the vices of such a people. The number of illegitimate births among us is large. In fact, it is so large that a definite amount has been fixed by common consent as the proper one to be paid by the putative father to the parents of the unmarried mother. Four hundred dollars, I understand, is the prevailing sum in our own and in the adjoining county. Divorce is so common that I have heard of marriage certificates which carried on the back a blank form to be used as a libel for divorce in case of necessity. But probably this report was only a joke, — and a very bad one. Not infrequently, men and women take new wives and husbands without the formality of a divorce or of a re-marriage. A remark thrown off by Coleridge is illustrated, I have often thought, in our own community. He said : “ A curious and more than curious fact that when the country does not benefit, it depraves. Hence the violent, vindictive passions and the outrageous and dark and wild cruelties of very many country folk.”Such men as Coleridge had in mind are found with us now and then in the village, but more often on remote and lonely farms. Sometimes these fellows are illegal sellers of liquor, and their houses are the resort of scapegraces for miles around and the scene of degrading orgies. There are whole families sunk in a slough of vice and poverty, from which, occasionally, some enterprising son or daughter will emerge, — perhaps only to fall back again in a moment of temptation or despair. It must be confessed that much cruelty is practiced upon women and dumb beasts. There are men, brutalized by liquor, who inflict torture upon their wives and horses every day of their lives.
On the other hand, there is among us a great deal of benevolence and of natural refinement. We come of good stock. Indeed, it is our boast that Americans of pure English descent are found only in remote New England towns like ours. There is not an Irishman, nor a German, nor an Italian, nor a negro in the village ; until lately there was not a foreigner of any description, but during the past few years several families from
Nova Scotia and from Canada have taken up farms within the town limits. Nowhere in this country, at least, I venture to say, can there be found better examples of the two English types, the blond and the brunette. The blond type is the prevailing one. We have many well-made, long-limbed men and women, with light hair, regular features, and eyes of the peculiar northern blue ; and others, though fewer, with dark hair and eyes and olive skin, like Kola King, whom I have mentioned already. Our manners, though a little brusque, are good, as manners always are in a community which has no “ social superiors.” Every man in the village, who is not specially marked out by vice or poverty, feels himself to be the equal, in all essential matters, of every other man in the world ; and this feeling goes a long way toward producing that equality which it assumes. There is absolutely no stealing among us ; it would be perfectly safe to leave all your valuables on the front piazza at night: and perhaps this immunity is one result of equality. To steal is a confession of inferiority, intolerable among equals. (Cheating in a horse-trade stands, of course, on a different footing, and may be practiced without entire loss of selfrespect.) Mr. Howells has expressed this truth. ”I believe,” he says, “that if ever we have the equality in this world which so many good men have hoped for, theft will be unknown.”
The absolute equality which prevails among us has its good and its bad side. It makes vulgarity and snobbishness impossible. We are coarse, but never vulgar. Vulgarity implies a consciousness, or semi-consciousness, of inferiority, and among us, as I have said, there is no such consciousness. On the contrary, there is a want of reverence in the village. There is no person or group of persons to set a standard of manners or of morals for the rest of the community. Nobody looks up to anybody else, — not even to the minister. Age itself scarcely invites respect; and this want of reverence gives a certain hard and flippant tone to our lives. The physician stands as high as anybody in town ; and yet it was only the other day that I heard him addressed by a little dirty-faced boy, not twelve years old, as “ doc.” “ Say, doc, when does the next school term begin ?” was the inquiry made by this urchin, in all sincerity; and the “doc” gave him a civil answer, taking no offense at his want of respect.
We certainly do without the fripperies of life, as is natural to a primitive people. Nobody takes a bath, for the sake of cleanliness, much oftener than once a month in winter; and a daily bath, even in summer (unless taken in the lake, for amusement), would be looked upon as an excessive and a fantastic thing. There is a general carelessness about wearing neckties or collars, except on occasions of solemnity or festivity; and there is an equal carelessness in the use of language. I suppose that more negatives are wasted here in a day than would last us, if properly used, for a month. But all these things are not essential, although they are the fashion of the hour in effete communities. We, in our corner of New England, bathe as much and spell as well as did the ladies and gentlemen of Shakespeare’s time, — or indeed of a time considerably later than that. And so as to the coarse language which is common, but by no means universal, among us ; it is, to say the least, not more gross than that which dropped from the mouths of Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines. Moreover, bad as it is, it is not so corrupt or so corrupting as the deliberate indecency of allusion, which, we are told, now marks the conversation of fashionable people in the great cities of the United States.
There are, I presume, ultra-sophisticated persons living in New York and Boston who would find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to believe that a man might be careless in his dress, neglectful of his tub, ungrammatical and inelegant in his language, — nay, even accustomed to eat with his knife, — and yet be in all essential respects a gentleman ; a person pleasant to live with, considerate, dignified, sensitive and generous in feeling, sincere to the core, and a lover of art and nature. But such men are to be found in our corner of New England. It is a proof of our innate gentility that we always consider the best as none too good for us. When we go away, for example, we invariably put up at the leading hotels, whether we can afford to do so or not. The drummers, who, after all is said, have great opportunities for forming an opinion, think highly of us. They say that we are a “ catchy ” people. — meaning that we are quick to appreciate and to buy new or improved articles.
Thus far have I written with a single eye to stating the fact as it is ; and yet I have not found space to mention what must, I suppose, be regarded as the master-passion of the community, namely, the passion for horses. Ours is a grazing country. The pastures are extensive, well watered, well sheltered; and hay is considered dear when it sells at ten dollars per ton. But in raising sheep the profit is doubtful ; and as to fatting cattle, that industry, once a leading one in this part of New England, was long since abandoned owing to Western competition. Even the rearing of colts has been unprofitable during the past few years, though in the past our fields were dotted with mares and foals ; but we look for better things in the immediate future. Horses, moreover, are largely the amusement as well as the business of the town ; and it must be remembered that in the absence of the stir of a city, of crowds, clubs, theatres, and books, we are at times hard put to it for entertainment. Some men seek it in watches. There is a most astonishing knowledge of watches in this community. You will find numerous persons who are familiar with all the chief brands of watches made in this country and in Europe, and who are continually swapping watches for colts, guns, wagons, cows, etc., or even for other watches. I know one man who devoted a whole year exclusively to trading in timepieces ; but not finding the business sufficiently profitable, he took to the ministry. It happened that a friend and contemporary of his became a preacher at the same time, so that it was natural to compare the pulpit performances of the two men. The one who was knowing in watches used to admit, very frankly, that his friend was the superior at preaching ; “ but,” he never failed to add, " when it comes to praying, I can knock spots out of him.” Strangely enough, however, this man did not find the ministry any more remunerative than watches, and, with a facility not uncommon among us, he passed from that employment to politics, and then (with a brief interlude of shopkeeping) to the law, which he still pursues, though he “farms it” between-times.
The bartering of watches is an occupation more suitable for filling little chinks of time than for a steady employment. On a rainy afternoon in summer, for instance, when people are sitting about in the barn, one naturally takes out his watch and invites an offer of exchange. But horses are an amusement at all times and seasons. There is a rough half-mile track just beyond the village, where trotting-races are held in summer and in fall. In winter the colts are broken, and in early spring, when sleighing is good on the lake, a great deal of impromptu racing is done there. As to talk about horses, it is always going on. I have even known the minister to spend the whole of Saturday afternoon talking horse in the blacksmith shop. We not only talk about horses, — we gossip about them; and this is possible because we know the ancestors, the relatives, and the personal history of every nag in the village. We are familiar with all his faults and defects, inherited or otherwise, and thus a solid basis for gossip is laid. There is much partisanship for different equine families or breeds, and this gives rise to continual discussions which have been known to end in blows. It is understood, for example, that whoever disparages Libby’s Knox in the presence of Thurston Tibbetts does so at his peril. Thurston is a good-tempered man, but he is very loyal, and a firm believer in the excellence of that well-known horse. When, therefore, in the course of conversation at the mill, Ike Fletcher stigmatized Libby’s Knox as a “ rank quitter,” Thurston took the remark as a personal insult, and after a few hot words had passed between them he knocked Ike down. They made it up afterward.
In every community there ought to be some sport or occupation in which the courage and superfluous energy of adventurous youths can be exercised. The whale fisheries, in former days, supplied this need for the lads of Cape Cod and Buzzard’s Bay; football and boxing, I presume, do the same for city-bred youth ; and in our neighborhood the breaking of colts, especially vicious colts, is the delight of those who love danger and difficulty. It is related of Hank Toothaker that, in his young days, he would take a skeleton wagon (“ skellington ” we call it, after the old English fashion) into a field, harness a perfectly wild colt to it, and proceed to drive him then and there. He was a man of great strength and activity as well as courage, and he never met with a serious accident. Among our present horse-breakers young Abner Nye is perhaps the best. Abner lacks the beauty, but he has the aplomb, the cool daring, the indifference, the style, of the heroes in the Guy Livingstone class of novels; and he is a master of equine slang. Some one asked him, the other day, if his brown colt was turning out well. “ Oh yes,” said Abner, with his professional drawl; “ he ’s a shapey hoss, and he really gets up a very fair knee.” It was not the brown colt, but a black one (a son of Temper, out of Vixen, and she by the Wilkes horse, Treachery) which very nearly proved — which may yet prove to have been — the death of Abner. He was driving toward the village one day, when this colt shied, upset the “ skellington,” and ran away. Abner clung to the reins, and was dragged along the ground, over stones and gravel, for half a mile, when he finally “ anchored ” the colt, as he expressed it, near the postoffice. His clothes were torn off, he was severely cut and bruised, and we fear that he was injured internally. He has coughed ever since.
Still more heroic was the act performed by the tavern-keeper’s son. One dark night in autumn, he started, with a friend, to drive home from a neighboring town, — two other persons, a man and his wife, having just preceded them. His horse was an extremely high-strung animal, of the Volunteer family. By some accident the hostler handed him only one rein, the other trailing on the ground. Before it could be secured the horse started, and in another moment he was off for home on a dead run. Knowing that if he was not stopped he would surely run into and perhaps kill the persons in front, the driver determined to climb out over the dashboard, and so to the animal’s back, — no easy task, with the horse at full speed on a rough road. If he had kicked up, as he was likely to do, the young man would have received a violent fall; but fortunately he did not kick, and with great difficulty and danger the driver got astride of him, and finally succeeded in pulling him up. But the brave fellow never recovered from the tension to which he had been subjected. Before that time it had been his delight to ride and drive all the vicious horses of the neighborhood, but after that night’s adventure he never cared to ride or drive again.
There must be something in the air of this mountain region which braces the nerves and makes people insensible to danger. Last September I happened to be standing in front of the tavern, when Seth Williams (a horsy farmer) drove by with his son-in-law, Church Cutts, on the way to camp-meeting. It was fine weather, and they were out for a day’s pleasure ; but how were they taking it ? Well, Seth was driving a half - broken, headstrong, vicious colt, — what we call a “ ty-rannical crittur.” Just before they reached the tavern the colt stopped, put back his ears, and humped his back two or three times, being evidently inclined to kick everything and everybody to pieces. It was a toss-up whether he did so or not, but Seth seemed indifferent, and Church wore a pleased smile upon his face, as if that were the kind of thing which he really enjoyed. Presently the colt went on a few yards, till he met a baby-carriage. Then, with a pretense of being scared almost to death, he started to turn around. If he had succeeded, the wagon would have been upset with a crash, and the colt would have run away. But Seth now took vigorous measures: he lashed the colt over the head with his whip, and jerked the rein on the opposite side. For a moment, however, it appeared as if the horse would prevail, and in that moment I glanced again at Church Cutts. There he sat, perfectly at ease, and with the same smile of pleasure beaming on his round face. At last the colt swung back into the road, and off they went for camp-meeting at a gait of twelve miles an hour. I expected that they would all come back separately, — the colt on his own hook, and Seth and Church laid out in wagons or in hearses. But, on the contrary, they drove home in good style, without accident.
I have spoken of the camp-meeting to which these men were bound, as if it were an affair of pleasure rather than of religion ; and such, alas, is the case. Religion, in fact, has almost died out of this community. We still maintain a church, but it is a feeble church, and our pastors, being poorly paid, are seldom men of ability; nor do they stay with us long. If the reader should attend the meeting-house on a Sabbath, as we call it, I fear that he would find the occasion a melancholy one, and that he would go away, if he were a reflective person, with dismal forebodings as to the future of New England. The congregation is small, and composed mainly of old people and children. Many of us, indeed, have one foot already in the grave. The young girls of the village usually attend, — chiefly, I fear, because of the opportunity to wear their best clothes ; and in part, perhaps, they are actuated by that conservative instinct which is so strong in womankind. There are a few young men in the congregation, but they are not the pick of the village. The truth is, that while we, the old, the very young, the ineffective, are singing the effeminate tunes of Moody and Sankey, or listening, somewhat restlessly, to the incoherent exhortations of our latest preacher, the strength of the community is occupied elsewhere and in other ways. It is hunting, or fishing, or swapping horses, or laying plans for the future, or sleeping, or perhaps reading the Sunday papers — a week old. More than half the men in the village know Sunday simply as the day on which they put on a clean shirt. Even if the strong men could be induced to attend our meetings, they would hear little which would attract or stimulate them. Our theology has decayed into a vague, sentimental adherence to the doctrine of justification by faith, and a belief in instantaneous conversion. But the men of this community, and especially the young men, require a stronger diet than that. If only some modern prophet would arise to bring them to their knees in an agony of remorse and repentance!
If one examines the history of New England character, he will find it hard to exaggerate the part which religion has played in its development. In former days, even the irreligious had, in the background of their lives, a severe and selfdenying standard of living which it was impossible for them to ignore. Sin itself was invested with a fearful dignity ; and surely no dream of human perfection ever so exalted the nature of man as did that stern theology which taught him that the stars and planets were only lights to light him at night; that for his benefit or for his punishment God might at any moment interrupt the course of the universe ; and finally, that he had within himself the momentous power of choosing eternal punishment or eternal happiness. Under that religious belief there grew up men and women — some of them are still living — who constituted little reservoirs of moral strength upon which the community, or even the nation itself, could draw in times of necessity. What influence will take the place of that old belief? What moral force will curb the passions, chasten the lives, stimulate the energy of the rude people who are born in these remote towns ? Whence shall they derive the discipline and the self-control without which their primeval strength will be as useless as the undammed waters of a mountain torrent ? I confess that these thoughts fill me with apprehension for the future ; and sometimes I am even led to think that New England character reached its culmination in the heroic sacrifices of the Civil War, and entered thereafter upon a long and gradual course of sure decay. All this, however, may be — and I trust that it is simply the pessimism of an old man. Let it suffice for him that the glory has not yet departed ; that the moon shines as brightly now upon the lake as it did when he was a boy; that he is still permitted to see the sun rise and set in the most beautiful and — as it seems to him — the most interesting corner of New England.